BMCR 2002.06.03

Shenoute and the Women of the White Monastery: Egyptian Monasticism in Late Antiquity

, Shenoute & the women of the White Monastery : Egyptian monasticism in late antiquity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. 1 online resource (xii, 248 pages). ISBN 1423757556. $49.95.

“If you are very straight in the presence of the Lord, and it is I who am crooked before him, then let God listen to your prayers, in your community” (196, n. 54). So reads one of Shenoute’s thirteen fragmentary letters to the female monks of the White Monastery, which form the foundation of Rebecca Krawiec’s Shenoute and the Women of the White Monastery. Through her analysis of these letters, Krawiec shows how Shenoute struggled throughout his tenure as head of the White Monastery in Upper Egypt (385-464 CE) to maintain control over the female monks, who lived separately from himself and the other male monks. The message underlying all of his letters is skillfully explicated by Krawiec. Shenoute believed that the women needed to recognize his authority in order to remain right with God and to achieve their own salvation. According to Shenoute, to reject him was to reject God. Since he was certainly not “crooked” before God, God would not listen to the prayers of the women’s community at the expense of his own. Hence, Shenoute offered the women a choice: follow him and thus God, or abandon both.

Krawiec’s work will appeal to a broad academic audience with interests in the use and abuse of power, the place of women in Christianity, the development of monasticism in late antiquity, and the human desire for salvation. Her work is thorough and in-depth, culling from her scant materials a rich and complex reading of power, gender, and their intersection in Shenoute’s monastery. She not only analyzes Shenoute’s discourse on his own power as located primarily in the monks’ belief that he could lead them to salvation, but she also elucidates the means by which the women opposed his authority through resistance, secrecy, and separation. Her discussion of Shenoute’s rhetoric of gender reveals a double-edged sword. On the one hand, Shenoute proclaimed a universal or genderless monasticism, which rendered the female monks subject to his authority in the same way as the male monks. On the other hand, Shenoute made it clear that male elders sent under his authority to the female monks were to be treated as superior to the female elders. Krawiec extends her discussion of gender by examining the fate of eunuchs in the White Monastery. Their expulsion, she argues, stems from Shenoute’s insistence that gender is a necessary part of humanity. Krawiec shows gender and power interacting most pointedly in Shenoute’s images of the monastic family and in the role of biological kin within the monastery.

Krawiec writes with clarity and direction, telling her readers not only where she is going, but how she plans to get there. She explicitly reveals her methodology throughout her study. She finds the key to Shenoute’s rhetoric in studies of the Pauline epistles, leading her to read Shenoute’s rhetorically constructed letters for revelations of his “ideology of monasticism” (7). In this, she is influenced by the work of Elizabeth Castelli, who applies Foucault’s definition of “pastoral power,” a power that is able to lead followers to their salvation, to the Pauline corpus. Krawiec has located this same power in Shenoute’s discourse. Krawiec demonstrates that Shenoute’s power rests in his ability to convince others that he is the key to their salvation. In pursuing her focus on gender, Krawiec is forced to move through various stages of feminist scholarship. First, she must restore women’s presence from texts that are untranslated and little studied. Second, she places these women in their socio-economic context, so that we can imagine these women against the backdrop of Egyptian monasticism in general and the White Monastery in particular. Third, she shifts from women to constructions of gender within the monastery.

Many of Krawiec’s most important contributions have little to do with the female monks. In this book, Krawiec gives new insight into Shenoute and his “ideology of monasticism.” She masterfully develops the picture of an abbot so confident in his own righteousness that he claimed to know how God would punish individual monks during life and after death. Shenoute believed that the beatings and other punishments which he meted out were divinely ordained. Any impurity located in an individual monk tainted the entire community, and beatings were necessary to purify both the monk and the community. Because the women were also part of his community, Shenoute needed control over corporal punishment of the female monks, lest their sins go unpunished and pollute him.

It is evident how Shenoute’s letters to the female monks enable Krawiec to portray her vivid picture of Shenoute as monastic leader. Unfortunately, the women after whom Krawiec seeks can only be shadows standing at a distance from this man. The letters, after all, are written by Shenoute to the female monks; there are no letters preserved written by the women to Shenoute. Krawiec herself is aware of the limitation of her sources, as are all of us who crave to know more about in women in the ancient world. However, Krawiec does accomplish much with the scant resources at her disposal. Although we know less about the women’s reaction to Shenoute than Shenoute’s reaction to them, Krawiec rightly argues that there is evidence of the women’s struggle for power.

Shenoute’s universal monasticism placed certain restrictions on the women’s community. Apparently, no prior head of the White Monastery had taken such an active interest in the female monks. Instead of making their own decisions about corporal punishment and the appropriate amount of food intake as they had in the past, the women were now told by Shenoute what the severity of the punishment was to be and that their rations were reduced to be on par with the men’s rations. In many cases, however, the women did resist, by not alerting Shenoute to infractions within their committee or by choosing to administer the punishments themselves. The women were able to use their separate living quarters to their benefit in these instances, but their behavior angered Shenoute and occasioned a number of the letters.

Krawiec is careful to point out that there was not a single idea within the women’s community about what it was to be a woman in the monastery or the appropriate nature of the male abbot’s role. In fact, some letters reveal that certain women told Shenoute about events within the monastery hoping that he would overturn the ruling of the female elder. Some women, therefore, were not at all concerned about having an outside male voice making final decisions; in fact, they welcomed it. Nor can we know if the female elders’ resistance to Shenoute developed out of conflicting ideas of gender or power. For example, it does not seem that the female elders resisted corporal punishment because they did not feel it to be an appropriate punishment for women. Rather it appears that they themselves wished to decide the nature of the punishment.

Gender and power interact most notably in Krawiec’s analysis of the tension between the biological family and the monastic family. Although the men and women were supposedly equal in terms of their monastic duties under Shenoute’s universal monasticism, there was a division of labor which seemed so “natural” as to continue the gendered relations of the household within the monastic family. Within the monastery, it was women and only women who produced the monks’ garments. The men, on the other hand, controlled the production of food and the maintenance of community buildings. Although food production is often associated with women, Krawiec shows from ancient papyrus letters that both men and women assumed responsibility for feeding their families, but the production of clothing was culturally considered “women’s work.” Many of the crises between Shenoute and the women’s community arose from disputes over these all important commodities of food and clothing. In some of these conflicts, it appears that the women used their control of clothing as a source of their own power. Yet Shenoute, as pater familias would use his institutional authority to demand new garments.

Krawiec produces evidence that there were many monks who were also biological kin. Shenoute fought against the favor that relatives would show to one another and argued that the monastic family should replace the family “according to the flesh.” However, when it served his purposes, Shenoute used the familial relationship to try to control the women. He knew that the women generally wished to see their kinsfolk and he exploited this fact to his advantage, trading the men’s visits as his envoys for complete disclosure of what happened in the women’s community. Krawiec underscores Shenoute’s threat that the male kinsfolk would no longer visit if the female community strayed too far from his leadership. In a particular instance Shenoute sent a male relative as an envoy to Tachom, a mother in the women’s community. Her refusal to accept Shenoute’s envoy was shocking to the abbot, and he wrote to her underscoring his disbelief that she refused to acquiesce to her own brother. Shenoute made it evident that Tachom should accept her brother although they were of the same rank. He argued not only that her brother, as his envoy, carried all of the authority of Shenoute himself but also that she ought to naturally respect that superiority of a male kinsman.

Although I generally find Krawiec’s analysis compelling and enlightening, I would like to raise questions about one of the ways in which she engages gender. She argues that that Shenoute’s rejection of the eunuch derives from his emphasis on gender as central to the self. One cannot ignore, however, the reasons that Shenoute himself gave for not allowing the eunuch to remain within his monastery. These reasons have less to do with gender than with the fact that he saw castration was a mark of “heresy.” Shenoute did not expel the eunuch because the eunuch is a third gender who can no longer live with the men and could not live with the women. In his words, Shenoute expelled the eunuch because he was “polluted by the blood of his wound” (131). Although Krawiec shows that the eunuch challenged gender assumptions in the ancient and late antique worlds, it seems that Shenoute did not see this as a question of gender, but rather of mutilation.

An appendix consisting of the thirteen letters from Shenoute to the women would have been a welcome addition to this book. It may be that all of the thirteen letters are embedded in Krawiec’s narrative and buried in her footnotes, but the reader should not have to do archaeological work just to read the letters that are so important to her analysis.

Krawiec’s work is a valuable addition to the growing number of works on religion in late antique Egypt. Her images of Shenoute and the power that he wielded make it understandable, if not palatable, why so many sought their salvation from such a violent and disturbing man. Although she may portray Shenoute with more empathy than he deserves, her work will certainly lead to new appreciation of this master rhetorician who was able to twist issues of gender in multiple directions to suit his needs. Krawiec presents Shenoute as a series of paradoxes, as a man who proclaimed a genderless monasticism and yet used gendered language to control the female monks and as a man who insisted that his monks abandon their family ties in favor of the monastic family and yet used their male family members as another source of control over the female monks.

Krawiec’s portrayal of the women’s resistance to Shenoute’s power is necessarily less confident. With the loss of their letters, the true motivations of the female monks remain an enigma.